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Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall

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By Sheila Scarborough
The production timeline is as uncompromising as a high-noon shootout. Brisket slow-cooks over mesquite for a full 14 hours, so it hits the grill at 10 p.m. Ribs and chicken join the party a little after noon the next day, followed by sausage at 3. By 5:30, when the Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall throws open its doors, the ’cue patrons will be waiting.

This quintessential Texas barbecue joint and dance hall is the center of the action in tiny Coupland (30 miles east of Austin). In 1906, the building opened as the Coupland Mercantile Company, and it later housed a pharmacy called the Albers Drug Company. One of the side dining rooms once housed Coupland Feed and Grain, and the half-dozen bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs originally were offices for the Coupland Telephone Company as well as various doctors and dentists. During Prohibition, so the story goes, the place was a bordello.

With its welded-pipe railings and cedar posts supporting the tin roof of the front porch, the Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall has drawn filmmakers looking to lend authenticity to movies such as Lonesome Dove and Varsity Blues. This is a living example of a Saturday-night dance palace, complete with colorful concert announcement flyers stapled to the porch bulletin board. The good news is that now, you can eat and sleep where you boot-scoot.

New owner Rick Smitherman is the boss man and chief ringmaster of the rustic establishment. He and his brother Ronnie purchased the place in June, and have been diligently tweaking and improving the restaurant’s menu ever since. “I fell in love with the history of the place and its potential,” Rick says. “The Coupland Inn had lost its luster in recent years, but we’re bringing it back.”

The restaurant is a meat-lover’s paradise, featuring the popular barbecue, steaks, burgers, and seafood like fried shrimp, mesquite-grilled salmon, and catfish prepared to order. There are plenty of sides, including Cowboy Potatoes (garlicky, crunchy wedges of red potatoes), homemade crispy onion rings, and green beans simmered with onions and plenty of bacon. Save room for a heaping dish of blackberry (or peach or apple) cobbler, served warm, with ice cream melting on top.

The three dining rooms, painted red and decorated with rustic antiques, have tables to accommodate crowds both large and small. A typical evening will find couples tucked into corners, while chattering groups serve themselves family-style as old-fashioned fans, suspended from the pressed-tin ceiling, twirl overhead. You might see the older gents wearing crisp white shirts and carefully polished shoes; others sport cowboy hats and scuffed boots that weren’t just bought for show. No Western poseurs here….

On one side of the main dining room, to the left of the still-operable potbellied wood stove, a heavy purple curtain, trimmed and swagged to within an inch of its velvet life, defines the dance hall.

Beyond that thin barrier, you’ll find honky-tonk angels and good times. Enter, and take a look around: It’s like opening up a roadhouse hope chest.

You’ll see springy wooden floors, a wagon-wheel chandelier, pool tables, neon beer signs, and a checkered oilcloth on each table. There’s a wooden 1886 bar brought from Schulenburg that’s peppered with shotgun blasts from some long-ago altercation.

You might recognize the bar from a scene in the TV miniseries Lonesome Dove, when Texas Ranger Gus McCrae smacks the surly bartender. Today, you’ll find only friendly staff behind the bar, serving up chilled longnecks from a horse trough filled with ice.

A long and distinguished list of (mostly) country musicians have played at the Coupland Dancehall: Willie Nelson, Kevin Fowler, Pat Green, Gary P. Nunn, the Bellamy Brothers, Ray Price, Canned Heat, Asleep at the Wheel, and Tracy Lawrence. The night that I took my family, the featured artist was Jason Allen, who launched into that great Charlie Robison song with “Bar light, bar bright, first bar I see tonight.”

Dancers of all ages and abilities hit the floor for a counterclockwise spin. At one point, someone took the mike and announced “It’s Bobbie Jean’s birthday, so everybody wish her a happy birthday. She’s only 30!” Bobbie Jean herself, obviously not a day over, well, 60, smiled and waved at the appreciative crowd.

A posse of teenagers—many of whom sported pressed shirts, Wrangler jeans with rodeo wallets, and Roper boots—got into the spirit. Some of them showed off a practiced, confident two-step. Birthday girl Bobbie Jean’s husband put everyone to shame, though: He stormed the dance floor with some swinging moves during a rockabilly number, and the other dancers scattered to the tables, leaving the floor to the master.

“It’s a place for everybody,” says Rick. “Whether you’re an accomplished dancer or a beginner, there’s plenty of room on this old dance floor!”

If you’d like to stay overnight, the Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall offers lodging above the restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays. Entire families sometimes rent out the bedrooms, and there’s a large sitting room/parlor as well. It looks out onto a M.K. & T. (Katy railroad) depot and caboose, plus you can see artist Jim Huntington’s outdoor sculpture garden (see page 17) across the street. The rooms are decorated in a tongue-in-cheek “nouveau bordello” style—stained glass, swag lamps, and rich brocade curtains—-—inspired by one of the parlor’s paintings.

What better way to two-step back in time on a weekend night than with dinner, dancin’, and snoozing after a pleasant drive through rolling hills and cornfields out to Coupland? Just look for the typically Texan grain silos standing as lonely prairie sentinels next to the railroad tracks, smell the barbecue, see the lights flooding out into the street, and hear the sounds of a toe-tapping good time.

Barbecue-lovers, prepare for blissful dining: The Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall’s four-meat plate (sausage, brisket, ribs, and chicken) also comes with your choice of sides, including a toothsome potato salad.

The Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall is at 101-103 Hoxie (at the corner of Hoxie and North Commerce streets, next to the railroad tracks) in Coup-land. Follow the signs on Texas 95. Call 512/856-2226; www.couplanddancehall.com.

Restaurant hours: Thu 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. (with an all-you-can-eat sirloin-steak special), Fri 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. (with a catfish special), and Sat 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (with an all-you-can-eat barbecue special). A kid’s menu is available, and some entrées are free to kids age 10 and younger with the purchase of an adult entrée.

The restaurant is in a dry precinct of Williamson County. To purchase beer, wine, or mixed drinks, patrons need to join the (free) Coupland Private Club.

Dance hall Hours: Fri 7-midnight, Sat 7-1 a.m. Live music usually starts around 9 p.m., and concert admission varies.

Rooms at the Bed and Breakfast (Fri-Sat only) cost $80 per night, including a Continental breakfast.

Read 27821 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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